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story.lead_photo.caption A bust of Donald Harington enlivens this bookshelf of Arkansas history. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/NIKKI DAWES)

History, like its poor relation journalism, has always been more art than science, an embarrassing fact for more prosaic practitioners and consumers who might insist history -- or at least their history -- is just the telling of how it was. (And their journalism is the telling of, as Howard Cosell would say, "like it is.")

But most of us admit more nuance than that. Most of us would probably agree that history is not what happened, but what was written down. Every history, no matter how honest the historian, is blighted by choices innumerable and unavoidable. To sculpt a narrative, more must be chiseled away than maintained.

But just because a thing is forgotten doesn't mean it didn't matter. Some records are lost, some are never kept in the first place and myth and rumor might over time concatenate with human wishfulness. In the study of history, there is no objective truth to be discovered like quarks and leptons.

Yet we think we know things, such as: Henri de Tonti and others founded the first European settlement in the lower Mississippi River Valley in 1686, along the Arkansas River about 20 miles upriver from its confluence with the Mississippi. This Post Aux Arkansas was an important locus of trade between the French Canadian settlers and the Quapaw Indians, as well as a way station for travelers headed south to the Gulf of Mexico.

We have high confidence that this is true; we believe it as firmly as we believe William Jefferson Clinton was sworn in as president of the United States on Jan. 20, 1993.

(Courtesy The University of Arkansas Press)
(Courtesy The University of Arkansas Press)

But what do we really know of de Tonti, whose name is spelled "Tonty" in some accounts? Maybe that he was Italian by birth (which is why Father Pietro Bandini, an Italian priest who founded the community in Northwest Arkansas, decided to call it Tontitown) and, when he was a young man, lost his hand while fighting for the French army, which led him to wear a metal prosthetic hook he covered with a glove, which led his men to call him Iron Hand. That he was a lieutenant of Cavalier de La Salle, in whose company he explored the Mississippi River to its mouth -- and that at some point he broke away from La Salle, leaving him in the Illinois country while he ran off to found Arkansas Post and acquire, at least in the eyes of the Europeans, ownership of the stretch of the Arkansas River that ran from the Mississippi to his settlement?

Maybe we cast Tonti as an opportunist, looking to monopolize trade with the Indians and build his empire in the New World. Or as a patriot, who saw his trading post as a bulwark against English expansion west of the Mississippi. One can imagine that a novelist might invent a rich character based on this Tonti fellow whose motives, desires and psychological complications we might only guess.

Despite these obvious problems, there have been at least a dozen books about De Tonti published in English since 1890. offers only Anne Heagney's 1959 children's book De Tonti of the Iron Hand which, according to Kirkus Review, depicts the explorer as "fearless, bold, dedicated to La Salle's ambitions for establishing French territories to the South" and claims "he willingly took a second place to his hero, acquitting himself at every turn with valor matched only by his shrewdness."


And so selecting a shelf of Arkansas history books ultimately devolves into an exercise of taste. There are fastidious historians who write aridly and writers who employ the interrogative techniques of the historian when it suits their purposes and gleefully abandon judiciousness when they concoct a vampire-fighting Lincoln.

Let's leave it to the historians to critique the history. The following list is simply a list of books I like that touch on or declaim Arkansas' past.

	Courtesy the University of Arkansas Press
Courtesy the University of Arkansas Press

But first, a peek behind the curtain. The impetus for this column was last month's announcement by the University of Arkansas Press of the publication of three new books about Arkansas history: Andrew J. Milson's Arkansas Travelers: Geographies of Exploration and Perception, 1804--1834; Jared M. Phillips' Hipbillies: Deep Revolution in the Arkansas Ozarks; and Arkansas: A Concise History, a somewhat abridged (434 pages as opposed to 600) version of Arkansas: A Narrative History, a collaboration among two history professors, an anthropology professor and a U.S. circuit judge. A lot of people will tell you if you have only one book on Arkansas history, it's the one to have.

But it's also one of those works that you might tend to forget you own. I emailed a well-read friend my question what books he'd choose for a desert island collection of Arkansas history. When he shot back (within seconds) A Narrative History, I thanked him and said I wasn't familiar with it. Then I discovered the book on my shelves, bookmarked in a few places. Maybe it has already become like Janson's History of Art, so ubiquitous as to seem invisible.

Like its big brother, Arkansas: A Concise History is credited to Jeannie Whayne, a UA professor who specializes in agricultural and Southern history (and who also serves as the general editor of UA Press' Arkansas History titles); her UA colleague George Sabo III, the anthropology prof; retired Arkansas Tech professor Thomas A. DeBlack; and the inimitable Morris S. Arnold, the judge who has also wrote two important works that deserve mention here, Colonial Arkansas, 1686-1804: A Social and Cultural History and The Rumble of a Distant Drum: The Quapaws and Old World Newcomers (both published by UA Press, in 1993 and 2007, respectively).

Guy Lancaster wrote the unsettling "Bullets and Fire: Lynching and Authority in Arkansas, 1840-1950." (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/JOHN SYKES JR.)
Guy Lancaster wrote the unsettling "Bullets and Fire: Lynching and Authority in Arkansas, 1840-1950." (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/JOHN SYKES JR.)

The email also touted three recent titles from the press' back list, the excellent and disturbing essay collection Bullets and Fire: Lynching and Authority in Arkansas, 1840-1950, edited by Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture poobah Guy Lancaster; James Moses' biography Just and Righteous Causes: Ira Sanders and the fight for Racial and Social Justice in Arkansas, 1926-1963, and Donald Holley's The Second Great Emancipation: The Mechanical Cotton Picker, Black Migration, and How They Shaped the Modern South. (Lancaster's and Moses' books were published in 2018; Holley's 2000 book has recently been published in paperback.)

The occasion of the publication of these books is what we call in the business the "news peg" upon which a columnist might tether some gasbaggery. But one of the problems of gasbaggery is that the columnist has but dipped into the newly published books. I'm not prepared to review any of them, although I've gotten far enough into Phillips' Hipbillies, a brilliantly conceived study of the counter-cultural back-to-the-land movement in the Ozarks in the '60s and '70s, to think I might write about it in depth later on.

Hipbillies is published not under the rubric Arkansas History but of Ozark Studies, the UA series generally edited by the formidable Brooks Blevins, a professor of Ozarks studies at Missouri State University, and whose 2018 book A History of the Ozarks, Volume 1: The Old Ozarks (University of Illinois Press) deserves a place on this list. It's the first installment of a promised trilogy and traces the development of the region from about a billion and a half years ago to the cusp of the Civil War.

Jay Jennings is the author of "Carry the Rock: Race, Football and the Soul of an American City." (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/JOHN SYKES JR.)
Jay Jennings is the author of "Carry the Rock: Race, Football and the Soul of an American City." (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/JOHN SYKES JR.)


Other keepers include Jay Jennings' Carry the Rock: Race, Football and the Soul of an American City (Rodale), which is far more than a deftly reported account of Little Rock Central High football team's 2007 season but a soulful reflection on and dissection of the city's regrettable history of racial strife; Bob Lancaster's 1989 essay collection The Jungles of Arkansas, and Tom Dillard's highly enjoyable (but unfortunately index-free) Statesmen, Scoundrels and Eccentrics: A Gallery of Amazing Arkansans from 2010.

Both those titles were published by UA Press, as is Roy Reed's Faubus: The Life and Times of an American Prodigal (1997), the definitive work on the enigmatic governor. Harry Ashmore's Civil Rights and Wrongs: A Memoir of Race and Politics (Pantheon, 1994) also feels essential, and I maintain a sentimental attachment to Ashmore's brief 1978 book Arkansas: A History (Norton), even though it has been rendered superfluous by other books. (Ashmore's was the first book on the state I read when I found out I'd be moving here at the end of 1988. He described de Tonti as "la Salle's friend and trusted lieutenant" and implies de Tonti established Poste de Arkansea more or less to fulfill the vision of his friend.

Folklorist Vance Randolph, a self-described "hack writer," could be represented by number of books -- he wrote dozens -- but I'm most drawn to his first one, The Ozarks: An American Survival of Primitive Society, first published in 1931 and most recently reprinted by UA Press in 2017, with an introduction by Vance biographer Robert Cochran, whose Our Own Sweet Sounds: A Celebration of Popular Music in Arkansas (UA Press, 1996) also belongs in this collection.

If you can find a copy, former Arkansas Democrat editor John Robert Starr's memoir Yellow Dogs and Dark Horses (August House, 1987), provides a subjective window into the wild-west wooliness that was the state's 1980s newspaper war that should be balanced by Jerry McConnell's The Improbable Life of the Arkansas Democrat: An Oral History (UA Press, 2016).

While there might be a question as to whether it should be filed with history, Widow's Web (Simon & Schuster), Gene Lyons' 1993 account of the various murders and trials that enveloped Mary Lee Orsini in the 1980s, is one of the best true crime books ever written. And, if we are to stray off the nonfiction path for a moment, anyone wishing to understand the Little Rock of the '80s should pick up Jack Butler's masterpiece, the neo-Joycean novel Living in Little Rock With Miss Little Rock (Knopf, 1993) which has strong resonances with Lyons' book.

(Courtesy The University of Arkansas Press)
(Courtesy The University of Arkansas Press)

There's plenty I've missed, including Grif Stockley's Blood in Their Eyes, Daisy Bates and Ruled by Race. The Butler Center's list is full of interesting titles. My friend Bill Jones, whose 2016 book Petit Jean: A Wilderness Adventure (Plum Street Publishers) is designed for young readers but doesn't condescend, suggests that, along with the previously mentioned titles by Morris Arnold, interested parties check out Charles Bolton's Arkansas, 1800-1860: Remote and Restless (UA, 1998); Carl Moneyhon's, The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on Arkansas (UA, 2002); John William Graves' Town and Country: Race Relations in an Urban-Rural Context, Arkansas, 1865-1905 (UA, 1991); C. Calvin Smith's War and Wartime Changes: The Transformation of Arkansas, 1940--1945 (UA, 2009); and John Kirk's Beyond Little Rock: The Origins and Legacies of the Central High Crisis (UA, 2007).


The oddest book I'd include in an Arkansas history collection might present to some as a novel or a love note (or, as I've seen it classified, political science), Donald Harington's beautiful Let Us Build Us a City: Eleven Lost Towns (Harcourt Brace), an account of his beloved wife, Kim, and their journey through the state to visit "communities that aspired to dignity and achieved serenity." Harington shot the photos for the book, which takes us through towns and villages like Cave City and Garland and Marble City (where Orville Faubus and Dogpatch are encountered) that never achieved the expectations of their founders, yet never completely died out.

Donald Harington at his Fayetteville home (Democrat-Gazette file photo)
Donald Harington at his Fayetteville home (Democrat-Gazette file photo)

It's not straight reportage, it's not entirely based on primary sources or interviews; Harington and Kim appear in the book as exaggerations rather than representative sketches of their actual selves.

In other words, it's art.


Style on 05/26/2019

Print Headline: The read state


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  • Illinoisroy
    May 26, 2019 at 9 a.m.

    Good article. I love history but you always have to remember that it is someone's interpretation of events. I had to look up "concatenate"

  • PopMom
    May 26, 2019 at 10:25 a.m.

    Good list. Another one of my favorites is "Hattie and Huey" by David Malone, the story of Hattie Caraway's historic campaign to become the first woman elected to the Senate.

  • UoABarefootPhdFICYMCA
    May 26, 2019 at 4:24 p.m.

    de Tonti, yes a spainyard of Italian descent, from the post-moor period.
    also read the slave owner records.
    read the slave ship owner records.
    i dare you.
    maybe you will stop accusing pilgrims, "f.u.c.k." convicts and irish slaves for holocaust and genocide of north and south america/globe
    when "anti/to replace" {shemites} slave owners and bloodsoaked conquistadors stand right in front of you.